Is My Dog a Drama Queen?

“My dog is such a drama queen!”

“My dog is so manipulative, she overreacts to everything!”

“That dog is not really afraid, she’s just being a diva.”

Have you heard any of these?

A few months back, I posted the following picture on the Observation Skills for Training Dogs group for comments. I felt like it was a good example of showing that photos can be deceptive, as I have previously written.

Zani dirty look pout

I solicited observations, and got some good ones. Zani is the smaller dog on the right. The observations about her included that her mouth was shut tightly, her body and facial muscles looked tense, her ears were slightly back, and she had whale eye. She was also sitting very close to the gate. The consensus was that she looked stressed.

So what was the problem?

I had interrupted her routine.

Zani has the most freedom to come and go in the house of any of my dogs. She gets along with everybody and is safe with objects and furniture. She has little routines she follows where she checks after the other dogs when they have eaten. She is my crumb vacuum, being interested in sniffing out and eating the tiniest pieces of food. She is an extremely persistent little hound dog.

In the picture I had prevented her from making her rounds by closing the gate. She wanted to go in the other room to see if Cricket had left crumbs (she always did, and I would generally give Zani permission to go get them).  She sat there staring at me like that for at least 10 minutes, her eyes boring into me, while I ate my breakfast.

I published the photo with the intent of demonstrating that photos can be deceptive, that the situation Zani was in was no big deal. Zani is a little hard for me to live sometimes with all these “overreactions.” But was it an overreaction? And was it a deceptive photo or not?

Stress

(Taking deep breath): I was wrong. It is not a good example of a deceptive photo.

The body language captured in the photo is that of a (slightly) stressed dog, and she was stressed. Just because I define a stressful situation differently, and am tempted to find her actions overdone and cute, doesn’t mean she wasn’t stressed. To deny that is to be a bit of a jerk.

Here’s another example.

Zani collage

In both of the above photos in the collage, Zani is sitting on the bed. In the one on the left, her eyes are open wide, her ears are forward. Her head is a tiny bit cocked in her “I’m paying attention” pose. Now, how about the one on the right? What is wrong? Her ears are hanging straight down flat and her eyes are squinty. The set of her eyebrows looks tense. Her head is no longer cocked and nose is a little bit down. The set of her mouth may be a little different, but it’s hard to tell because her head position is slightly different. But she definitely looks unhappy.

The problem this time: another dog was in her way on the bed. She couldn’t get under the covers.

What a drama queen, right? Again, no.

Taking Our Dogs Seriously

The term “drama queen”  has implications that just aren’t appropriate for a dog. It’s a critical term for  a  person who overreacts to things (in the view of the person using the term), usually in such a way as to maximize attention, and even to put a guilt trip on someone else.

Even though dogs like attention, Zani’s actions do not have the goal of making me feel bad. Although we learn more about dogs’ cognitive skills all the time, there’s a much simpler explanation for Zani’s behavior. The flat ears and woeful expression are an indicator of her own feelings. She is frustrated.

It is perfectly possible, common even, for a dog to learn that certain actions such as whining or looking pathetic can get desirable behaviors from humans. That’s reinforcement in action. Their behavior can get reinforced by our responses. Dogs learn to bark, whine, or tremble to get us to notice them and take action.

And indeed, there is one behavior common to the above pictures and the ones below that is that kind of learned, reinforced behavior. In all the photos, Zani is looking at me. I heavily reinforce polite eye contact, so it has become a way for my dogs to ask for something. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t reinforced all the little body language nuances that make up Zani’s stress/frustration/appeasement responses. She came to me with those. And I’m pretty careful in general about what behaviors I reinforce in my dogs.

But this wasn’t supposed to be about psychoanalyzing Zani. It’s about changing my own assumptions.

I need to take Zani’s frustrations and stresses seriously, not just brush them away as cute, silly, or annoying. I imagine that my occasional irritation with her is a defense mechanism in part. I can’t always act on what she wants. But I need to change my internal response.

I need to remind myself that this house, with my other dogs and me, and the places Zani gets to go–these things are Zani’s world. She is utterly dependent on me. She has things she likes and dislikes, things she looks forward to or not. They are perfectly real and important to her. I give her as much freedom and as many choices and fun activities as I can. But she has huge limits on her world, like almost all pets, and has real feelings about the things she likes and dislikes in it. She has a right to that.

Many people think, I’m sure, that I am overly solicitous, or even spoil my dogs. To me, it’s important to maintain my empathy for their dependent situation. I intend to remind myself, on seeing Zani’s stress or frustration, that she is not overreacting or trying to manipulate me. I want my response to be, “How can I make her life more fun? More pleasant? Is there a way she and the other dogs can get what they want?” Or when I can’t do anything about it, at least not take it personally when she looks like that!

It’s popular in some quarters to say that we need to add stress to dogs’  lives in order that they learn to cope with it.  This is often used as an excuse for using punishment. Indeed, animals and humans alike need to learn coping skills. But I find that my dogs’ lives have plenty of stress in them, and my time is better spent minimizing it than maximizing it. Not to mention that Zani copes beautifully with most everyday stressors. She’s not freaking out, getting aggressive or depressed, developing stereotypies. She just gets sad in her own way, then sighs and goes off to a comfortable dog bed.

Zani is both sensitive and expressive. She’s a little soft hound dog who wears her heart on her sleeve. I just need to remember that most of the time there is no agenda regarding my thoughts and feelings, although she certainly would like to affect my behavior as it relates to the things she wants.

Here are two final photos of Zani. In the first one, she is worried that I may take another dog for a ride. Her tail is tucked, and thought it’s hard to see, her back is a little arched. She’s looking up appealingly.

Zani tail tucked

In the second one, she is in the car but I have put her in the other dog’s crate. She has no objections to crates in general, but again, I messed up her routine. There are those flat ears again.

 Zani wrong crate

What we are seeing are her sensitivity and her feelings. She’s worried in the first photo and bothered in the second. Actually, when I think about it, I like it that she feels free enough in her life to be that expressive. I’ll do my best to do right by her, and not think of this tender, sweet little dog as a drama queen.

Coming up:

  • My webinar: 2/19/14: Over Threshold: The Changing Definition (still available as a recording!)
  • All-Natural
  • Which Dog is Playing?
  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek.Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Dog body language, Human and dog misunderstandings, Stress Signals and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Is My Dog a Drama Queen?

  1. Genie says:

    Hi Eileen, I have been reading your blog for a short time, only a few months, and have wanted to comment on so many posts! I just love your insights, tenderness, honesty, and I learn so much from reading your ah-ha’s and internal dialogue you are sharing with us about your relationships with your dogs. This post touched me especially because I had a wonderful dog some years ago that I thought of as a drama queen and since her passing and my educating myself and delving into this new way of thinking of and working with dogs I am so sad I can’t back up the truck and do so many things with her over again. I had not been able to articulate it but when I read your blog this morning you said the words that expressed my feelings about her and other dogs who are labeled as drama queens of which I also have intuitively changed my mind and heart to think differently about. Thank you and I look forward to your webinar tomorrow!

    • Genie, thank you so much for commenting. It is so encouraging to know that I have touched somebody with my words and stories.

      I understand about wanting to back up. I have a particular dog I would love to have a “do over” with. He wasn’t overly dramatic, but I definitely under appreciated him. Maybe I will write about Shadow one of these days.

      It means a lot that you wrote to comment. Thanks!

  2. Marjorie says:

    Love this post Eileen. I get accused of spoiling and over accommodating my dogs. I do agree that it is stressful enough for dogs living in our world. I try and give mine as much free choice as possible (sometimes even this can cause them stress) and I pay particular attention to their favoured routines so that I can accomodate them as much as possible. You know what they say, “love is in the details.” I try and put myself in their paws. It can be a challenge sometimes balancing new experiences with favoured routines, but when I’m conscious of going across the line, I find giving kind reassurance and responding to their upset goes a long way to building relationships.

    • Oh thanks for saying that! I agree that it’s a challenge about the routines vs new things. We all hope for resilient dogs, and I can tell you are thoughtfully doing your very best toward that end. Thanks so much for the nice comment. It’s always so nice to hear from you, Marjorie.

  3. Kate says:

    This is wonderful. I am guilty of saying my dogs are overreacting in similar situations, but you are so right. Thank you for this lovely wake-up call.

    I wonder what kind of perfect, stress-free place some people must live in to feel the need to add stress to their dog’s life – the implication seems to be that if they don’t, the dog won’t experience enough! Even though I live in a quiet, rural area, don’t use aversives to train, and try to use management well, my dogs experience more than enough stress – sometimes even too much! Deliberately adding to it in any way would be very unwise.

    • Oh, thank you. I am so touched by your reply and those of others. I am very guilty of getting annoyed about this, but hopefully the most I do is roll my eyes now and then. (I probably shouldn’t even do that. Zani is one observant little dog!)

      The whole subject of stress is an interesting one. Skinner believed in teaching learners to deal with stress by adjusting the difficulty of learning material to make it more challenging. (And sometimes I do that accidentally with my dogs just by being a klutz!) The major point being that adding aversives was just not even in the realm of possibility. I think he called it “shamefully irrelevant.”

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m so glad what I wrote resonated.

  4. diana says:

    another fabulous post, eileen.
    and great, thoughtful comments as well.
    how many of us who are sensitive to our dogs’ feelings, needs, and wants have heard the phrase “it’s just a dog!” (or some similar sentiment).
    thank you for taking the time (yet again) to be a dog’s advocate. so very much appreciated 🙂

  5. CK Bales says:

    I call Malcolm my Drama King because he does over react sometimes. One instance was his licking Max to the point Max turned and lifted his lips and made a small snap in the air. Malcolm spent the next two minutes screaming like his face was ripped off, his head was hanging by a thread and he was on the edge of certain death as he screamed, cried and yowled while running around in circles. Max never touched him. Each circle, yowl, cry and protest was followed by a quick peek at me to see if I would deal with either him or Max. Basically, it was the atypical German Shepherd puppy over reaction to being corrected by Max. As soon as he stopped throwing his dramatic puppy fit, he went back to licking Max’s face – much to Max’s dismay.

    I do give him the emotional support he needs when he truly needs it, but when he was 3 to 5 months of age I would evaluate if it was a puppy fit of frustration, overly dramatic, or truly something he needed my back up on. By doing that I rarely get the over reaction to being told by the adult dogs that his constant licking is rude. None of the adult dogs are forceful or over the top with him and he now gives a small fit of protest and moves on. Nothing like the Spanish Inqusition torture victim display he used to do.

  6. Laura says:

    Being a very first time dog owner of a beautiful, sweet Rhodesian Ridgeback named Radley, I have been following your blog faithfully and just love your insight(s). We adopted our 3 year old (he may be a little younger) from our local Ridgeback Rescue Organization over five months ago, and we could not be happier with our fellow. I am 56 years old and thought I wasn’t a “dog person” all these years! Boy was I wrong.
    Anyway, I really enjoyed this particular post, and the way you illustrate your points using pictures of Zani. There was another blog where you showed what a dog looks and acts like when they are shut down (I believe the example was Zani in that one too, bless her li’l heart) and that one was was great too. Also the article about inadvertently training superstitious behaviors was impactful to me. I notice now, that every time Rad wants a treat when I am in the kitchen, he sits very perfectly on the exact same spot on my kitchen mat.
    Anyway, I continue to learn from you every single time I read your articles. I share these with friends and family too. The video of all three dogs scrambling to get on their mats when you sweetly say “Places” never fails to make me laugh, they are so earnest, and you are so sweet to them. That sweetness comes through in all your articles as well.

    THANK YOU so much for investing your time, passion, and wisdom so that your readers can get a little smarter too, and have fun in the process.

    • Laura, I’m so touched by your comment. Thank you SO much. I’m so glad you have found some of my posts helpful. And yes, Zani is quite a little test case. The good part is that she has a great temperament–loves all people, especially kids, and most dogs. Great little communicator. And her recovery time, both from stresses like in this post, and bigger fear episodes, is growing shorter. Thanks again for writing.

  7. “She just gets sad in her own way, then sighs and goes off to a comfortable dog bed.” Such a sweet little dog, Eileen. 🙂 She’s lucky to have you.

  8. I think I’ll have to get you to start writing MY blogs – you say exactly what I think in a very eloquent way. I particularly liked this part (one of many bits I liked, mind you): “But I find that my dogs’ lives have plenty of stress in them, and my time is better spent minimizing it than maximizing it.” I think I wrote something similar on FB a while back in response to the argument in favour of using punishment: I agree that aversive stimulus is a part of life: both mine and my dog. But I have the choice not to add any more stress to my dog (or me) when teaching her the guidelines of living happily together. Keep ’em coming. If I can stay awake, I hope to tune in live to your webinar. It will be 2am my time! I’m also going to pick your brains for ideas and suggestions on my next project – since Zani and Zuri are so similar (even their names)…….so stay tuned.

  9. Leah says:

    Thank you thank you! I’m going through some serious trouble ATM with learned ‘dramatic’ behaviours with my adopted Cocker. It’s been a tough few days and this helps a lot! Great timing Eileen. Thanks- Leah

  10. kimberlygauthier says:

    I love this post. It’s fantastic and I’m going to share it over on my page. I’ve learned to pay attention to body language, facial expressions, position of tail and ears when it comes to our dogs. It teaches me a lot. Especially when we’re doing something new – like going to a play date, training class, or when guests are over.

    Our dogs are pretty easy going and happy, but I know that I shouldn’t take that for granted and try to always be observant.

    Thank you again for this post.

  11. Great post – I love reading articles about ‘reading’ our dogs. Understanding their posture and reading their facial expression is so important to helping alleviate ‘bad’ situations.

  12. So right, Eileen. This is something we all need to work on–taking our dogs seriously. And, in a way, that goes for humans, too. Who are we to judge whether something is an “overreaction”? Until we know the context, or unless we’re 100% certain the intention is to hog attention–and how can we ever be?–our assumption is exactly that.

    I have a dog that might be similar to Zani in the heart-on-sleeve thing, although he’s larger, a sort of Shepherd, maybe Husky, mix. He has separation anxiety, refuses to sleep outside (has actually hurt himself in the process of breaking into the house at night, not to mention the “tantrum”–again, assumptions–he threw on the sofa cushions when he couldn’t find a way into the bedroom, so now he sleeps next to my bed), will go to great lengths to not be left behind with the rest of the pack when I leave the house. His response to life is to sit on my foot (who knew a dog’s pelvis could be so hard?). Strangers freak him out. Traffic freaks him out. Other dogs–not the pack–freak him out. A door swinging closed by the wind freaks him out. Easy to say, “Ah, drama queen–or king.” But the fact is that within his context of life, these things are scary. And that’s my fault, not his, because I’ve failed to instill in him the confidence to explore rather than flee. Like with a five-year-old who’s afraid of the Monster In The Closet, shutting him in the closet and turning out the lights isn’t going to solve anything and will probably leave an indelible scar. So I try to give him exposure without pushing him past his threshold until he’s ready. Lots of work, lots of patience–and yes, lots of observation.

    Thanks for this!
    Guilie @ Life In Dogs

    • Guilie, I love how you said this: “This is something we all need to work on–taking our dogs seriously. And, in a way, that goes for humans, too. Who are we to judge whether something is an “overreaction”? Until we know the context, or unless we’re 100% certain the intention is to hog attention–and how can we ever be?–our assumption is exactly that.”

      I so agree that we should extend this courtesy to humans as well! What a good point.

      Your big guy is obviously very lucky to have you. I’m glad for him that he has an owner/partner with such empathy and care.

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